When people lament the sorry state of America’s college campuses—the politically correct culture that’s run amok; the exorbitant tuition and other fees that lead to no measurable actual learning; the utter wastefulness of campus administrators—they often site how these educational institutions fail to prepare the next generation for the “real world.”
Yet when perusing the new season of stupidity emanating from our so-called institutions of higher learning, a disturbing thought dawned on me: Colleges’ bizarre maze of useless rules and requirements may be pretty good preparation for our increasingly bureaucratic economy and civil society.
My alma mater, Princeton, earned headlines recently for a memo issued by the Human Resource department. Over the course of four pages, HR earnestly instructed faculty about how to avoid using the term “man” in favor of more gender-inclusive language. As The College Fix reported, Princeton highlighted how to use “person” or “humans” to replace “man,” and how to avoid trickier, subtler, allegedly male terms: “Artificial, handmade, manufactured, synthetic” are all preferred to the insidious “man made.”
It’s tempting to scoff at such soft-headed political correctness as a silly and wasteful use of resources. Anyone who is truly offended by the use of the word “man” as a generic for “person” is certainly in for a rough ride in our increasingly coarse culture. It’s become standard to say that in the “real world,” there are no such things as safe spaces, and people need to be prepared to have their sensibilities offended.
Yet in the professional world, at least, there are plenty of equally contrived efforts to guide speech and control behavior to avoid creating controversy and giving offense. When these students enter their first white collar jobs, they’ll undoubtedly be instructed about what’s acceptable and, more importantly, what’s off-limits and could be grounds for a lawsuit and termination. Schools may be doing these students a service in preparing them to walk on eggshells to ensure that, in the future, they don’t offend coworkers, bosses, or potential clients in our highly charged, litigious world.
Stanford University—still reeling from the horrific, high-profile sexual assault that dominated the news last spring—began the school year by announcing a new policy limiting the availability of alcohol at parties. Hard liquor is banned entirely from undergraduate parties; graduate students can still have mixed drinks, but shots are a no-no for everyone; there’s a volume limit for any hard alcohol containers students have in their dorms, and there are even rules relating to the proof of various drinks.
Cynics note that this policy will be worse than useless in preventing student alcohol abuse. The San Jose Mercury News summed it up: “The new rules quickly came under fire Tuesday from critics who say they will simply force binge drinkers behind closed doors and send the wrong message about alcohol being an excuse for campus rape.” The criticisms are glaringly obvious: Singling out one form of alcohol sends a mixed message (is guzzling wine and beer somehow better than sipping a scotch?) and could ironically encourage students to binge drink before they even leave their dorms and head off to the party, and discourages students from seeking help when it’s needed.
Yet one gets the sense that the actual impact of the new proposal is probably beside the point. This is a P.R. stunt that is meant to send a message to the public and to concerned parents that the school cares—really, really cares—about student safety. That’s the key goal; given the attention the announcement generated, it succeeded in that at least.
Students will benefit from becoming familiar with such feel-good efforts to “address” a problem, especially when the powers-that-be are really trying to solve a perception problem, rather than the actual, on-the-ground root issue. After all, so much of what passes for policy or ideas on the Left is really just “virtual signaling” intended to convey one’s moral superiority to their peer group, rather than make a positive difference in the world. In fact, this is necessary preparation for a career in Washington, when the ability to come up with an appealing name or acronym (It’s the FAMILY Act! It’s good for families, get it? Or it’s the Paycheck Fairness Act, so it must really help women earn more!) is just as important as what the legislation’s actual impact would be. It’s also good training if you want to join a company that’s trying to please radical environmentalists and other consumer groups, while still running a business and producing usable products.
In a better world, we’d have a college system that was dedicated to helping students acquire truly useful skills. Yet, sadly, the bizarre politically-correct dance that students learn on campus may actually be as important as any class in getting them ready for our lawyer-dominated, virtue-signaling “real world.”